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Office Space Planning, Fewer Walls Drive More Inclusive, Purpose-based Corporate Culture

It wasn’t long ago that office space planning reflected some of the staid qualities of old corporate America—similarity, hierarchy and exclusivity.

Space was organized by discipline. If you were an accountant, you sat with accountants. Marketers sat with marketers, etc.

And your place on the corporate ladder determined whether you had a private office. A position on the upper rungs yielded a window. It also determined your view—streetscape or alley—and the size of your space. Those at the very top, of course, had spacious offices with glorious views.

The lower rungs relegated you to a sea of high-walled, fluorescent-lit cubicles, oftentimes with a contraband space heater to warm your frigid toes.

Barbara Jackson

But times have changed, according to Barbara Jackson, director of Daniels’ Franklin L. Burns School of Real Estate and Construction Management. Where hierarchy once ruled, companies now use space planning as a strategy to advance collaboration and teamwork. There also is a new emphasis, she says, on the purpose of the organization rather than status or professional discipline.

“The idea of Mahogany Row—with executives at one level and everyone else at a different level—still tries to exist but we’re seeing much less of it,” said Jackson. “The majority of space today is open, with fewer or shorter barriers than there used to be.

“There’s been a shift to much more open, less-segregated environments, even to the point where people don’t have titles on their business cards,” Jackson added. “Companies are working hard to create a one organization culture with fewer barriers between executives and other employees.”

Jackson says the change began about 10 years ago when instant messaging became the standard for intraoffice communication.

“We began using IM to communicate with colleagues for everything—even if they were just steps away in another office or cubicle,” said Jackson. “It was convenient, but we soon learned that technology actually inhibits the substantive dialogue and brainstorming that happen face-to-face.”

Companies made face-to-face communication the more convenient option by introducing the concept of coworking. In place of walls and private offices, coworking favors an open environment where colleagues—seated next to one another at tables—can easily have real discussions, unrestricted by IM character limits.

Coworking also broadened management’s thinking about space planning as a cultural tool, deploying space based on the purpose of an organization.

“I visited several integrated design and construction firms that had architects on one floor, engineers on another floor and construction on yet another floor. They had organized their space in silos—which was the trend—but they weren’t really integrated,” said Jackson.

“They opened their eyes to the value of designing workspace based on their purpose and integrating people across disciplines into pods focused on the types of projects the firms specialized in, such as schools, hospitals or airports,” she continued. “Hospitals have begun to take the same approach—creating cross-disciplinary pods to tackle a disease or specific treatment problem.

“Integration doesn’t necessarily happen simply because you have different specialties or disciplines within your organization,” Jackson said. “True integration derives from a culture that values multi-disciplinary thinking and discussion, and coworking drives that. The culture of an organization can be altered by changing the physical space.”

Supporting coworking, space planners began purchasing modular office furniture components that could be reconfigured more easily and less expensively. Solid walls went by the wayside.

Then came COVID-19.

“The biggest shift recently is that coworking has become remote working,” said Jackson. “Companies are very worried about it because of the loss of employee engagement. Training also is an issue. Companies strongly believe that training cannot be done remotely—people have to be side-by-side.”

Jackson believes that COVID-19 will create a greater tolerance for remote working but is unlikely to become a 100% solution.

Coworking, however, will continue to expand. And your frigid toes? They’ll benefit from the warmth of the personality seated right beside you.